The French lawyer Eric Dupond-Moretti (AFP Photo / Joel Saget)

Stars of the bar

PARIS, March 30, 2015 – We’re in the smoking room at the court in Bobigny, north Paris suburbs. Strange place to be meeting anyone. I’ve just finished setting up a mini photo studio, in the haze-filled little space. Enter Eric Dupond-Moretti, French star lawyer, here to have his portrait shot in between two hearings.

He smokes a few cigarettes. I crack open the window to clear the air and our photo session begins, bathed in the smell of cold tobacco. Black-robed figures flow in and out, chatting and watching, clustering by the window to let their smoke curl out into the cold drizzle.

An hour later, after lunching on a Bounty bar from the vending machine, the lawyer heads back to court.

Georges Kiejman (AFP Photo / Joel Saget)

For several months now, AFP has been shooting a series of portraits of France’s star lawyers. From Georges Kiejman, lawyer for Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, to Henri Leclerc, who has defended both Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Dominique de Villepin. Most sat for me in their offices but Dupond-Moretti was impossible to pin down – hence the unlikely setting, itself the result of weeks of arduous negotiations by my partner-in-crime, the AFP photo editor Sophie Drimal.

The initial idea was to shoot studio portraits of 15 or so of France’s best-known lawyers. I plan to take each one in city clothes and court robes, against a neutral background. I work in black and white, although each photo generates a colour file too.

In the end, though, the project took on a life of its own. I am currently on my 35th lawyer, and the series isn’t over yet.

Frank Berton (AFP Photo / Joel Saget)

We didn’t expect our subjects to be quite so photogenic.

Take Frank Berton, who made headlines during the Outreau paedophilia trial 10 years ago. A face straight out of a 1960s film noir. Or Olivier Morice, a former rubgy player whose high-profile cases include the Rio-Paris Air France crash in 2009. You could just picture him as an action-movie tough guy, a real bulldozer.

Olivier Morice (AFP Photo / Joel Saget)

There are old French movie posters plastering the walls in the office of Pascal Garbarini, a specialist in Corsican terrorism cases. And boxing pictures, too. During our sitting he tells me he recently took up the sport again. And gamely strikes a boxer’s pose for the camera.

Pascal Garbarini (AFP Photo / Joel Saget)

"Lawyers are like actors,” said one of the veterans I met. “And not only because of the size of their ego,” he added half-jokingly.

It’s true a courtroom is a theatre of sorts, with its set, its costumes, its audience, its recited texts and improvisations. Like an actor, a lawyer has to fill the stage. And some of them display real skill before my camera.

Henri Leclerc (AFP Photo / Joel Saget)

A portrait is a two-way game. I am faced with stars of the bar, powerful people, usually in a hurry. And I have to get them to reveal to me a part of themselves.

As I take my first shots, I am glancing around their habitat for clues to help me understand them. I chat, I snap, it’s a kind of photographic conversation. The person sitting opposite me ends up taking their eyes off the clock, and their mind off their busy schedule.

Anne-Laure Compoint (AFP Photo / Joel Saget)

My goal is to strike up a bond, something bordering on the intimate, that goes beyond mere trust. I want to get under my subjects’ skin, to capture who they really are.

With Anne-Laure Compoint, who specialises in police corruption cases, we end up chatting about comic novels for two full hours.

Patrick Maisonneuve (AFP Photo / Joel Saget)

With Patrick Maisonneuve, a lawyer in a corruption case embroiling Nicolas Sarkozy’s ruling UMP party, we talk about his native Auvergne region, as he shows me pictures of his country home.

Corinne Dreyfus-Schmidt (AFP Photo / Joel Saget)

Corinne Dreyfus-Schmidt - one of the lawyers in the recent pimping trial involving Dominique Strauss-Kahn - was a little standoffish to begin with. But she relaxed into it, and we wound up with this nice shot of the feisty women she is.

I photographed Richard Malka, lawyer for Charlie Hebdo, around six weeks before the attack on the satirical weekly. He reminds me more of a designer – with his leather bracelet in lieu of the lawyer’s ubiquitous watch.

Richard Malka (AFP Photo / Joel Saget)

It was far from easy, at the outset, to negotiate half an hour or 45 minutes out of their packed schedules. In the end, though, almost without exception, our sessions lasted far longer than planned.

Even with Pierre Haik, lawyer for Nicolas Sarkozy, who was exquisitely polite all throughout our 90-minute shoot, although I later learned that he loathes having his picture taken.

Pierre Haik (AFP Photo / Joel Saget)

The record? Nearly four hours spent with Jeremie Assous, a labour law specialist who made headlines a few years back for a high-profile reality TV trial. I should add that he happens to be a keen amateur photographer, so we had plenty to talk about.

Our portraits end up in the hands of AFP’s photo lab – the only one still in operation among the major news agencies. Although dark-room processing is a thing of the past, the skill of our lab technicians is as relevant as ever, and helps produce the best possible digital images.

Jeremie Assous (AFP Photo / Joel Saget)

Some of my subjects share their most memorable moments at the bar. Others crunchy anecdotes.

Paul Lombard was one of the last lawyers to have witnessed an execution in France. He speaks with a voice still full of emotion of his client Christian Ranucci being led to the guillotine at dawn 39 years ago. Convicted of murdering a little girl, Ranucci’s guilt was later called into question, fuelling a debate that ultimately saw France abolish the death penalty in 1981.

Paul Lombard (AFP Photo / Joel Saget)

In another register, Roland Dumas, former foreign minister and president of France’s Constitutional Council, lets slip that he once, long ago, represented a woman in a divorce case who kept a diary recording her many lovers – and grading each one’s performance.

While leafing through the notebook, Dumas stumbled upon the name of an eminent colleague – tarred with a less-than glorious grade.

Roland Dumas (AFP Photo / Joel Saget)

David Koubbi, the lawyer for Societe Generale rogue trader Jerome Kerviel, shows me his lucky charm – a magic wand that he keeps in his briefcase at all times.

David Koubbi (AFP Photo / Joel Saget)

When first offered this assignment, I confess I was not enthralled.

We began the series with Jean Veil. Described in a recent profile as the most powerful lawyer in France, his list of past clients includes Chirac, Strauss-Kahn and Societe Generale during the Kerviel scandal. He also happens to be the son of Simon Veil, the veteran lawmaker famous for championing French abortion rights in the 1970s.

Jean Veil (AFP Photo / Joel Saget)

I spent two hours with him in October 2014. A very warm and open person, funny and self-deprecating, he introduced me to the peculiar microcosm of French lawyers, its quirks and intrigue. I think it was that encounter that persuaded me to keep going – and delve deeper into this unknown world.

Joel Saget is an AFP photographer based in Paris. View his previous photo series of D-Day veterans here.

Joël Saget